Real Life

'Penguins helped save my life'

This Kiwi’s penguin passion carried her through cancer.

By Kelly Bertrand
'Penguins helped save my life'

Lynn Wood has been mad about penguins for 17 years and has one of the biggest collections of penguin-themed treasures in the world. But she never expected that her penguin passion would one day save her life.

Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2011, Lynn was told that she only had a few months to live. Instead of spiralling into depression, however, Lynn coped with her cancer the only way she knew how – by focusing all her energy on her love of the endearing birds.

"Thinking about the penguins really helped me get through the cancer," says Lynn. Lynn already had a huge penguin collection that has enveloped her entire Wellington home. But her friends decided she needed a real-life penguin to lift her spirits too – so they adopted one, called Woody, for her from Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium in Auckland.

Lynn says her adopted penguin Woody is the best present she’s ever received.
Lynn says her adopted penguin Woody is the best present she’s ever received.

"That was amazing," she says. "I couldn't believe they'd gone to the trouble of adopting a penguin for me. We went up there last year to see him, we got all kitted out and went on the ice with him."

When Lynn was first diagnosed, doctors told her there was nothing they could do for her and that she had only months to live. "They said, ‘Things aren't looking good for you.’ I asked, ‘Is it just a matter of time?’ And they said ‘Yes, months’."

Weeks after Lynn’s shock diagnosis, where she was told the cancer was in her lungs and her lymph nodes, doctors called her back in to say they would attempt chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Lynn's cancer started to disappear. "I don't know if it was a misdiagnosis or what," she says. "Perhaps they shouldn't have told me I was going to die at first. But I'm still here today!"

Now in remission, Lynn believes channelling her energy into her penguin obsession, as well as visualising the cancer leaving her body during treatments and regular intakes of vitamin C, are part of the reason she's still here today. And, of course, now that she's sticking around for longer, Lynn now has a real-life penguin, as well as her thousands of penguin-themed treasures.

"I don't have any children, so Woody is like a child to me, " she says. "He's in Melbourne now, which is quite sad. When my friends gave me Woody, it was before I knew I was going to be okay, and it was the best present I've ever received."

Lynn's love of penguins began 17 years ago after a trip with friends to Kelly Tarlton’s. "I just loved watching them swim around, I thought they were really gorgeous," she says.

"Afterwards we went out to have a fish lunch, which was appropriate, and then we went up to Sky City [casino] and I saw the penguin themed-pokie machines. I thought, ‘Oh, these are cute! I think I might play them!’ And that's how it all started, really."

Now for every birthday, Lynn knows to expect nothing but penguin-related presents, with her favourite piece gifted to her from friends in the Hawke’s Bay. "My friend found this amazing penguin mould, and they painted a Scrabble board on its tummy."

But of course, Woody is still the closest to her heart. "Gentoo penguins are definitely my favourite type now, because of Woody,” she laughs.

Her collection is smaller these days, as Lynn gave away some of her prized penguin keepsakes as she thought she was going to die. "But that's okay," she says. "I've seen people happy with them, which is nice."

Lynn's hearing is almost gone, a side effect of the radiation and chemotherapy treatments. "People kept telling me, ‘You must be so glad you didn't lose your hair,’ but I would have preferred that to losing my hearing!" she exclaims.

Hearing or no hearing, Lynn's still got boundless energy to enjoy her penguins. "Penguins just steal my heart!"

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